The science behind why doctors should be living longer

By Alistair Gardiner
Published January 19, 2024

Key Takeaways

What sets doctors apart? Some point to their years of higher education. So much schooling can open a lot of doors in life—in fact, research suggests it can even open the door to a longer life.

According to one analysis, published in Genus, several studies have shown that highly educated people benefit from several drivers of lower mortality—and thus, improved longevity—particularly with regard to cardiovascular diseases. The authors even went so far as to say, “Eliminating education-specific inequalities in mortality would save even more lives than medical advances.”

Can physicians expect to live longer than most because of their robust education? Perhaps. Here’s what studies say on why educated people like doctors may live longer, healthier lives.

Better education, longer life

The Genus study examined data on populations from three countries—Italy, Denmark, and the United States—to analyze differences in life expectancy between those who attained higher education and those who didn’t. Over 2 decades, researchers monitored the health of three cohorts of participants who were all aged 30 at the beginning of the study period.

In all three countries, life expectancy was highest for those who had more than a high school diploma, followed by those who achieved no more than a high school diploma, and finally those who did not complete high school. Interestingly, for the US cohort, researchers found that the impact of education on life expectancy was most significant when comparing those with the highest degree of education and a medium level of education, rather than those with a medium level and the lowest level of education. This finding suggests that the biggest differences in longevity are associated with going to college.

“[T]his study demonstrates that progress in education has made important contributions to increasing life expectancy in Italy, Denmark, and the USA over the past two decades,” the authors wrote.

Another study, published in SERIEs, used national surveys of subjects aged 50 and over from 14 countries to ascertain how education affects health. Researchers found that each additional year of schooling accounted for, on average, a 6.85% reduction in the reporting of poor health. Their findings also suggest that gaining a higher education results in a 4.4% reduction in likelihood of developing a chronic illness.

Broken down for specific conditions and diseases, the study found that each additional year of schooling resulted in these averages: 3.3% reduced risk of developing heart disease; 2.7% reduced risk of developing diabetes; 4.6% reduced risk of hypertension; and 7% reduced risk of developing arthritis. 

Mechanisms behind longevity and education

How do scientists explain the link between more education and a longer life? Reasons range from educated people’s ability to make informed lifestyle choices, to their improved socioeconomic circumstances. Education helps people develop basic cognitive skills like reading, writing, communication, logic, critical thinking, problem-solving, and more. These attributes can help people avoid unhealthy lifestyle choices (like smoking or binge-drinking) and motivate them to engage in health-enhancing behavior (like regular exercise). 

It also increases the likelihood of securing stable, well-paid jobs. A higher income, along with informed decision-making, often lead to a more nutritious diet, better housing, and higher quality medical care, according to the study. Those with a higher education are also more likely to have money, knowledge, and beneficial social connections to access life-saving innovations and new technologies.

After concluding that adults with a higher education level live longer and healthier lives than their less-educated peers, a study published in Archives of Public Health, which looked at data from 26 countries from 1995-2015, dove further into the mechanisms involved in this disparity.

The study’s authors split the health effects of education into three categories: economic; social, psychological, and interpersonal; and behavioral health. A higher education, they wrote, can lead to improved economic variables, like income and occupation, which can open doors to “acute and preventative medical care.” The social resources afforded by education provide individuals with the support and coping strategies needed to better deal with ill-health consequences, like stress. And, finally, educated people are better equipped to recognize symptoms of diseases or conditions and seek medical help before they become serious. 

Caveats in longevity and education

All of that said, the Archives of Public Health study notes that education can bring adverse health effects, too. The increased attention to preventive care, for example, could lead to higher short-term healthcare costs. In addition, some evidence suggests that higher levels of education are associated with increased prevalence of illicit drug and alcohol use, as well as higher rates of depression.

The Genus study also points out a possible shortcoming of this research, ie, the “macro-level effect of education on mortality might be moderated through other characteristics of the populations.” The authors note, for example, that for Black people in the United States, evidence suggests a high school education is the threshold for mortality reduction, while White people enjoy the longevity benefits of further education beyond high school.

While a higher education may lengthen the lives of some for the aforementioned reasons, it’s just one piece of a much larger puzzle of the factors contributing to mortality and longevity.

To learn more about factors that increase longevity, click here.

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